"Look," my small, energetic companion says, in the hushed whisper of a field zoologist, or a caricature of a field zoologist. "They're all holding their phones."
Even on this overcast afternoon, the playground on 77th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side is crowded with children and the people who care for them. "So many people do that," she continues, as we watch a woman in her twenties scroll through her phone with one child lolling in her arms, another climbing a bench out of her sight. "The young ones, especially." My small, energetic companion is Limor Weinstein, and she calls herself a nanny spy.
In wealthy urban neighborhoods like New York's quintessential one, the casual teenage babysitter earning pocket money is a quaint figure of the 1980s. In recent years, parent-horrifying stories of nannies behaving badly have proliferated, and childcare workers have come to expect that they are being watched. Cameras are common, of course; you can buy them disguised as smoke detectors, baby monitors, clock radios, DVD players, lightbulbs, water bottles, flash drives, A/C adaptors, tissue boxes, air fresheners, houseplants, coffee pots, The New International Student's Dictionary of the English Language, Dr. Who-themed cookie jars, and teddy bears to suit several personalities. Parents who find this distasteful or expensive can crowdsource spyware, with blogs like I Saw Your Nanny allowing anonymous users to post testimonials and upload cellphone snaps of nannies engaged in irresponsible behavior, which ranges from sleeping on the job to yelling at children to keeping items such as "a book called How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson, a vibrator, dirty men's underwear, and pregnancy tests" in one's bedroom. Started by former nanny Lesley Kring, I Saw Your Nanny has been home to sanctimonious tattler strangers and righteously indignant parents since 2006, and now it also operates a Facebook page, which promotes ISYN posts and shares childcare news articles with scaremongering headlines like "Babysitter Caught Violently Abusing Toddler On Video."
But all that seems a bit East German; it lacks a human touch. So for the last ten years, Weinstein, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology from Columbia, has offered just that, as an on-the-ground nanny cam that can monitor what nannies do when they leave the apartment, analyze behavior patterns and body language, offer parents communication techniques, obtain intel directly from nannies, and take cellphone photos more trustworthy than those of a random vindictive internet person. It costs $150 per hour, but teddy bears can never tell you everything. Did she really go to the park? How often does she smile? Is she resolute in sticking to the organic, gluten-free diet, even when they pass the ice cream place?
Weinstein grew up "on the street" in Jaffa, Israel. Her family was very poor, and after her father was incarcerated when she was 12, she and her three siblings were placed in foster families. From there she lived on a kibbutz, which is a communal farm or settlement that operates on the principle that anyone can live there as long as she works. There were drug addicts and alcoholics around, Weinstein says, and this was the beginning of a long struggle with bulimia, but she was quickly tasked with working in the daycare, and she loved it. She began working for "super wealthy" families when she traveled to Austria to work as a nanny (for one of the "top doll makers" in the country) at age 17. She came back and spent her required two years in the Israeli army, working as a waitress for extra money. When she finished her service—an abusive older boyfriend got her out two weeks early, somehow—she went to San Francisco, where she lived with the boyfriend and her sister. In the States on a student visa, Weinstein immediately began working for more "super wealthy" Jewish families to pay for her schooling, and for "hundreds of dollars' worth of food" she would buy each week. When she'd been there a year, and bulimic for six or seven, she started writing her memoir because, at "80, 78 pounds," she began to feel like she was going to die.
Despite the boyfriend and the illness, however, she continued to get work through a growing network of nanny clients, who would often book her and her sister up completely, though now she says she doesn't know how she managed to watch children in her state. "When they [weren't] looking, I was bringing and purging, throwing up constantly," she says.
"I think a part of [this] was like, nobody's really watching [me]," she continues, so she took it upon herself to watch everyone else.
Her life changed when a client told Weinstein, suggestively, that she wanted her "really cute brother who lives in New York" to move out to San Francisco. He came out for a visit; they began a long-distance relationship that lasted two years, all while Weinstein cared for his sister's kids. (Furious when he found out, the abusive ex-boyfriend called immigration on Weinstein to report her for working under the table. Things ended up OK.)
When Weinstein finally made the move out to New York to study psychology (specializing in eating disorders) at Columbia, she got married and began working more nannying and miscellaneous jobs. The move into surveillance happened accidentally, but naturally, in 2005, when a friend asked her to keep an eye on a nanny she wasn't sure she could trust. The next week, she was at a country club with her in-laws, and someone in the group asked her what she did for a living. Wanting to make a good impression, but also not thinking, Weinstein blurted out: "I'm a nanny spy!" "Nanny spy" sounding pretty sexy and interesting—especially to wealthy country club members who know the difficulty of trusting even the most smiley of strangers with their precious, peanut-allergied babies—someone hired her to perform her services on the spot.
After that first job—which offered a minor crisis in the form of a child running away from the playground; should she give away her position to keep him away from the gate?—the client told her friends, which led to more jobs. Weinstein told one of her tutoring clients, and they were immediately excited. Despite never making a website, "people [were] going crazy" about the idea of a nanny spy. At one point she collaborated with a friend's ex-husband, who was a private investigator.
When Weinstein's classmates in her psychology program heard how she was earning her extra money, they all wanted in, too. But Weinstein's methods are very particular, and spying is a delicate enterprise. Because of her psychology background and love of talking, Weinstein's approach is less fly-on-the-wall, more undercover embed. After striking up a conversation with an unsuspecting sitter—"'Oh, that your son? You're a nanny?'"—she uses the CALM technique, which stands for "Connect," "Affect" (make it pleasant and friendly), "Listen," and "Mirror." It's designed for disciplining children but can be used on anyone you want to do something or tell you something; Weinstein's aim is to get the nannies to trust her so she can ask them leading questions about the family they're working for. Does the nanny like them?
Lying is another big issue—parents will ask Weinstein to tail their nannies and make sure they're going where they say they're going. A recent job: A nanny told a mother that she was at the park—the kid was on the swings! Meanwhile, Weinstein was watching the nanny try on clothes at Joe Fresh on 5th Avenue. "Some of the lies are small lies," Weinstein admits, "but if you want to go do something, go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Don't tell me you're at the park." She says nannies often drop off their shopping bags with the doormen of the buildings they're working in to hide that they've been shopping; she stops to show me pictures on her iPhone with the Joe Fresh nanny with a bunch of bags. "I look like I'm texting," Weinstein says with a smile, "but I'm really taking pictures."
Sometimes I think the nannies are amazing and the parents treat them like shit.
Loyalty to the family is a big part of Weinstein's investigations, she explains; shit talking is frowned upon. "'Some of the mothers are so bossy and so condescending'," she quotes. "Even if it's true, you don't say that to a stranger." Nevertheless, if a nanny's complaints end up revealing that the family is neglectful or mistreating the nanny, Weinstein will carefully intervene on the nanny's behalf, too. "Some of the parents are monsters!" she says. "I don't want to be like, 'Oh, all the nannies are bad.' Sometimes I think the nannies are amazing and the parents treat them like shit. If you want your nanny to treat your child with respect, then you have to treat the nanny with respect.
"Some of [families] make so much money, and they're so cheap," she continues. "This person is taking care of your kid! You give them a manicure and pedicure once a month, you buy them lunch, and if they're staying for dinner, you order them dinner!"
Now, though I Saw Your Nanny still gets a kick out of bad babysitter sightings (and the this-is-a-possibly-racist-invasion-of-privacy comments that follow; many nannies in New York are immigrants from the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Central and South American countries), the site has also become a forum where nannies can seek or offer advice, and even review parents as well. In one recent post, a nanny asked readers whether they thought a parent was trying to spy on her by requiring her to wear scrubs every day; another updated readers on an ongoing saga with a "neglectful parent" that resulted in the nanny calling Child Protective Services.
Ultimately, Weinstein's involvement depends on the case. If a nanny leaves something—a "$300 sweater" is an example Weinstein offers—she'll bring the sweater back later. If the child is in danger or the nanny is abusive, she intervenes immediately, though it took some time to figure out how and when to react. If a nanny demonstrates "potential," Weinstein will tell the family about the social worker she collaborates with, who runs a six-week "nanny rehab" to help childcare providers "work out their issues." Other nannies never find out they're being spied on.
Indeed, at the end of our park session, after being moderately convinced of the utility of nanny spying, I was almost disappointed in the lack of abuse and neglect on display on 77th Street. The use of cellphones is our chief criticism, which is bad, but not that bad, in the great scheme of things—who doesn't spend all day texting or whatever?
Well, playgrounds aren't ideal surveillance spaces, Weinstein tells me. It's difficult for anyone to keep track of kids when they're running around and shouting with tons of other kids running and around and shouting. They're also very public. "Wait for a rainy day," she tells me. "More opportunities to be alone."